Although it was intended to be an Easter composition, the “Hallelujah” Chorus from Handel’s Messiah has become the musical diadem of the Christmas season. It has already in early January vanished from the radio, because the modern West pre-celebrates all its holidays. (The Christmas season traditionally spans the “12 days of Christmas,” from December 25 until the feast of Epiphany on January 6.) However, it never would have graced the most joyous season of the year without the entrepreneurial spirit of its composer.
Among the many reasons behind his frantic composition was a desire to earn enough money to pay pursuing creditors.
George Frideric Handel was born into a poor but devout Lutheran family in Halle, Germany, in 1685. His father, Georg, wanted his son to study law and forbade him from pursuing his passion for music. According to some biographies, the younger Handel smuggled a small clavier into the attic and taught himself to play, practicing so quietly that he did not disturb his sleeping parents.
At age seven, he accompanied his father to Weißenfels’ Trinity Chapel, and began playing its organ. The duke insisted that the prodigy develop his musical gifts, and Handel began playing in Halle Cathedral. From there, Handel would embark on an extraordinary journey – from Italy, to the court of Hanover, to London, to musical immortality.
Handel became “the first truly cosmopolitan composer,” wrote biographer Christopher Hogwood, “with a staunch independence that prevented him from ever accepting the position of employee and a pragmatic approach to composition that enabled him to excel in every chosen field, sacred or secular.”
However, his mastery of the opera cut deeply into his profits. Operas required that he rent the performance venue, hire (often highly temperamental and foreign) singers, and construct lavish sets and wardrobes. As the public’s taste for opera began to wane, his livelihood began to dry up. Soon, Handel stood in danger of ending up in a debtors’ prison.
Two decisions would change his life, and sacred music, forever. First, Handel adapted to the changing marketplace by jettisoning costly operas and began writing oratorios – musical compositions that were typically performed in the vernacular language without elaborate costumes or backdrops.
“With oratorios, Handel could be more his own master,” wrote biographer Jonathan Keates in Handel: The Man and his Music.
Second, an old friend named Charles Jennens approached the composer with a libretto – the words, which Jennens described as “a meditation of our Lord as Messiah in Christian thought and belief.” Some say he intended the scriptural lyrics to combat the heresy of Deism. Jennens prevailed upon Handel to write the music, writing, “I hope [Handel] will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other Subject.”
Handel worked tirelessly, composing the 259-page score in just 24 days. He would not leave his room for days at a time and, legend has it, he often left his meals uneaten.
Handel also reportedly told his servant that, while composing the Messiah, he’d had a mystical vision. “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself seated on His throne, with His company of angels,” he said.
At the end of the manuscript, Handel wrote the initials “SDG,” which stands for “Soli Deo Gloria” – one of the “five solas” of the Protestant Reformation meaning, “To God alone be the glory.”
However, it was not smooth sailing. Church authorities denounced Handel for arranging such inspirational texts, because sacred oratorios were staged in theaters, where the next performance may feature bawdy material. Rather than seeing his work as taking the Gospel to the lost sheep, eighteenth-century Christians believed the venue somehow tainted the work – that the infirmity infected the medicine.
Handel’s Messiah debuted in Dublin’s Musick Hall on April 13, 1742, and came to London a year later. The Messiah became recognized as an unsurpassed work of musical and scriptural value. Even critics expressed their criticism in ethereal terms. Horace Walpole, the politician and son of Prime Minister Robert Walpole, wrote that some of the singers’ limited vocal ranges “give me an idea of heaven, where everybody is to sing whether they have voices or not.”
However, Handel truly established his work in the public imagination when he performed a charitable benefit inside the chapel of Foundling Hospital, an orphanage. One of its governors, William Hogarth, decided to set the new philanthropy apart by donating one of his own paintings to keep on display. He convinced other artists to follow his lead and, soon, Foundling Hospital became something of a public museum.
Handel began giving annual performances there – first of his “Hallelujah” Chorus in 1749, then the full Messiah every year until his death. He personally conducted a performance while wracked with pain, just weeks before he passed away on Holy Saturday, April 14, 1759.
“The creative philanthropy of Hogarth, Handel and their contemporaries was remarkable, but their support was not without professional self-interest,” reported the UK Guardian (which seldom misses an opportunity to note professional self-interest). “The two artists were pioneers in their respective fields and they needed platforms on which to promote their work.” Minnesota Public Radio explained the situation in starker terms yet, stating that Handel wrote the Messiah for three reasons:
(1) For the glory of God,
(2) for the benefit of charity (profits from the first performance were used to support a hospital and an infirmary in Dublin; and to release 142 people from debtors’ prison), and, of course,
(3) for the benefit of George Frederic Handel (profits from the second performance went straight to the composer).
Messiah again made Handel a wealthy man. He prudently invested his earnings in the stock market, where his wealth grew beyond his wildest dreams. His estate totaled £20,000 (more than $1 million U.S. today.)
His wealth allowed him to become a notable philanthropist. Handel freely distributed his goods to orphans – the Foundling Hospital, which had been so good to him, became a favorite charity – as well as the aged and infirm. He also donated to a debtors’ prison in Dublin, where he very well may have ended up.
Handel knew his genius, or “comparative advantage” – the God-given talent that would become his vocation – at an early age. He pursued it despite all obstacles and excelled through hard work and study. He maintained independence – in those days, most patrons were government officials – by frequently changing patrons, demonstrating a willingness to move across seas using eighteenth-century modes of travel. He creatively adapted to his consumers’ demands, and reduced his overhead, by changing his musical style. He profited handsomely from his work – and his investments in the stock market (which some denounce as “speculation” or even “gambling”) – and donated the proceeds to those most in need, as Christ commanded in Matthew 25.
Handel’s immortal, manic composition – catalyzed by fears of a Dickensian future in the poorhouse – has become the soundtrack of the holiday season. Messiah is a testimony that entrepreneurship, mixed with charity, can ennoble the mind, enrich the culture, and feed the soul.